Never heard of her, you say? Well, she was born a long time ago, in 1490, engaged at the age of three to a Spaniard, Fernando Francesco d’Ávalos, and married to him at age 15. They had no children and she saw little of him during their marriage, as he was off fighting for the Holy Roman Emperor. He died when she was 35.
Now a widow, with her parents also dead, Vittoria was her own boss, and she became the first woman poet published in Italy. At first she wrote love sonnets to her husband. It seems she adored him—who conspicuously did not love her—more after his death than during life. She wanted to become a nun, but Pope Clement refused—needing her to control the whims of her troublesome brother. Because of her wealthy background, she knew all the important people of her age.
Vittoria was a friend of the intellectual Marguerite de Navarre, became perhaps the closest friend of Michelangelo and fell into platonic love with Cardinal Pole, another neglected Renaissance character. Reginald Pole was an Englishman, exiled by Henry VIII because he opposed The Divorce. Pole was only two votes away from becoming Pope in the mid-1500s and became the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury after Henry’s death.
Vittoria’s later poems were devotional, not romantic, and it’s ironic that Michelangelo, also a skilled poet, wrote love poems to her, while she did not write them to him. She died in 1547.
Her story was especially interesting because of a course I took last winter about the importance of the few highly educated women in the Renaissance and Enlightenment to the cultural lives of Italy and France, despite the strength of those patriarchical societies. They may not have had many rights, but they figured out a way to have influence. Vittoria herself inspired many women poets, who credited her with paving the way for them. The result was that, by 1599, Italy had 200 published women poets, compared to, say, England, with 12.
This is based on a presentation by Brandeis professor Ramie Targoff in Princeton last night. She’s the author of Renaissance Woman: The Life of Vittoria Colonna. Writing in the New York Times, author Sarah Dunant said, “What could have been the story of a religious good girl becomes instead the study of a passionate, complex woman with formidable poetic talents: someone who, while embedded in her own age, emerges as a thinker and seeker in tune with a modern audience.” Certainly the audience that heard her story last night in Princeton would agree.